Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon

Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon

Before 2016 Venice Biennale Director Alejandro Aravena put forth his charge to architects around the world to exhibit what they were working on to improve quality of life through architecture, the United States Pavilion was already imagining the future of postindustrial American cities. With Detroit as their inspiration, Anyone Corporation Director Cynthia Davidson and Princeton School of Architecture Dean Mónica Ponce de León are hoping to position the speculative work of 12 diverse offices as a model for urban architecture. Davidson and Ponce de León spoke with AN about their inspiration and how this year’s U.S. Pavilion is engaging with the city.

The pavilion, titled The Architectural Imagination, will be part of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, open from May 28 through November 27 in Venice, Italy.

The Architect’s Newspaper: Aravena has asked that the national pavilions “show what they have been fighting for on the home front,” in trying to improve quality of life. What would you say the thesis for the U.S. Pavilion is this year and how does it relate to the Biennale as a whole?

Cynthia Davidson: Well, Mónica and I were selected for the architecture show before Aravena was named the director of the biennale. When Aravena was announced, we were very pleased because we feel that our exhibition will be a very good fit with his ambitions even though we had conceived of it before we knew what he wanted to do. And this is because, Monica might have another idea, we are working with architects who are operating on the city. Detroit is a city that is rethinking what it means to be a postindustrial city in the 21st century. That is something you could say Americans are “fighting for on the home front” to put it in his words. We did not set out to achieve that, but we think we fit his agenda with what we are doing.

Mónica Ponce de León: Actually it is interesting. The project is not about Detroit. The title of the project is The Architectural Imagination. We wanted to commission original work by architects to think about the 21st century. We chose Detroit because of its long history of creativity, of imagination, of being on the forefront of new ideas. So Detroit is a catalyst for thinking about the present and thinking about possible multiple futures. We also wanted the architects to produce speculative work, but to work within the context of the present and to have as their framework the realities of the city today. In Detroit many of the realities of the city are magnified. Detroit became a very positive city for us to work with.

What has been the reaction of the city, or people of the city?

Davidson: One of the things we did was through the University of Michigan’s Taubman College. Mónica invited all of the architects to come to Detroit to meet with the advisory board we put together, which included Maurice Cox, the city’s planning director, community leaders, people involved in real estate, and other institutions. A number of them had never heard of the Venice Biennale, and they are now really on board with it because it brings architects to Detroit to visit sites, meet with people in the communities, and have conversations about the definition of the architectural imagination. We did a lot of groundwork with these architects before they started working. Not only has there been a great deal of media interest in what we are doing, but several people in Detroit are writing for the catalog. The exhibition is going to travel back to Detroit after the Biennale and will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in March 2017. We think that’s an incredible indication of the level of interest there.

Ponce de León: I think we are doing something really unique—as far as I know it has not been tried for the Biennale. We are not taking projects off the shelf. We are commissioning work, but we decided the work should not just be “everything goes.” So Cynthia and I, from the very beginning, before we chose the site, before we chose the architects, assembled an advisory board of people that know Detroit really well. We have a number of folks on the board who have been active for a long time on urban issues in Detroit and who are working very hard to make it a city of the future. They helped us select the sites. We had a weekend where we asked, “What sites need speculative work?” Not what are the sites that need to be fixed tomorrow, or what are the sites that are in ruins, or what are the sites that need quote-unquote “help?” But, instead, what are the sites that can be helpful in looking at the city of the 21st century and can become models outside of the city of Detroit as well? We came up with 20 sites originally and narrowed it down to seven with the board.

Davidson: Then Mónica and I revisited the seven sites and narrowed it down to four. We picked four because there are four rooms in the American Pavilion in Venice. (Laughing) It is sort of dumb…

That is probably the best way to do it…

Davidson: That way we have three architects on each site.

Ponce de León: The intent is that they are not working as teams; they are giving us three different proposals for each site. We don’t want architecture to come across as a solver of problems, as if there is a single way to approach urban issues. Instead we wanted to show how architecture can show multiple solutions. One of the unique things we did was a national call of interest. We allowed anyone across the country to submit their interest in participating. And we selected 12 teams from across the country. Some of them are names you may know and some you have probably never heard of before. We ended up with a very diverse group with different forms of working, different histories, different expertise. Which we think is exciting because it shows the versatility of the discipline, the versatility of architecture. The third thing we did that was unique, as Cynthia was describing, was to organize a series of visits for these offices to come to Detroit to meet with community groups, meet with business leaders, meet with government officials and really get to understand the culture of the place. Not just the physical characteristics that make a site, but also the broader context. We are very excited about the level of generosity of those that spent time with the architects, and the level of exchange between the architects and community members.

Davidson: Another reason those visits were important was because the architects are not just making forms, the architects are also choosing program. The community meetings and feedback were intended to help them to choose realistic programs. They are speculative projects and you can pick any kind of form, they could be sexy or grotesque, but we wanted them to be able to say, this is a bank, or this is a hotel, this is a hospital. It’s really interesting how diverse the programs have become as well.

Are they producing parts of the pavilion in Venice or something on site in Detroit? Can you give us an idea of what they are producing, and what are the qualities we can expect of the pavilion in Venice? If you can.

Ponce de León: Everyone is required to build a model that is four by seven feet. They are free to do the model at whatever scale they choose. As a result, we are ending up with a wide variety of models, even for those working on the same site. We are also displaying other drawings and other models on the walls. We are not just showing final products. Cynthia and I have been very interested in displaying process drawings as a way to expose what we understand as the power of design, the architect’s imagination. We are really happy that the 12 participants work very differently, so not only are the process drawings very different, the final products are very different. We have a really rich array of techniques and ways in which architects explore architectural ideas. They are as diverse as the architects themselves.